Syracuse Chiefs

Pitch clock, in attempt to improve pace of play, yields mixed results in the minor leagues

Joe Bloss | Senior Staff Writer

The pitch clock initially shaved 16 minutes off baseball games. But many players disregard the rule, which has not been nearly as effective as planned.

Tucked away in the public address booth behind home plate, Eric Phillips arrived an hour before first pitch of a recent Syracuse Chiefs’ game. As he’s done for the past three years, Phillips ran the pitch clock for that afternoon’s game.

Former MLB commissioner Bud Selig announced an initiative in 2015 to improve the pace of baseball games. A pitch clock, limiting the time pitchers have in-between pitches, was installed in class AA and class AAA stadiums around the country. It was a test before any major initiatives reached the major leagues. The results have come back mixed.

In the International League, in which Syracuse competes, game times dropped from 2 hours, 56 minutes to 2 hours, 40 minutes, according to Minor League Baseball data. After the 2015 season, though, game time has increased, up two minutes in 2016 and six more in 2017 (through Aug. 27). The average game time since the installation of pitch clocks has decreased only eight minutes.

“No one wants to sit here for four hours in the sun and watch a two-run baseball game,” Phillips said. “But if they can get it down to 2 hours 30 minutes, you’re not wasting your whole day to sit around and watch a baseball game.”

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Joe Bloss | Senior Staff Writer

The booth in which Phillips sits is behind home plate and looks over the field. He keeps the windows cracked to hear the sounds of the game. The open window has allowed foul balls into his room.

Scattered around are names, dates and dents of the baseballs. There’s Matt Joyce on June 6, 2010 against the wall. Corey Brown on Aug. 19, 2012 on the ceiling. Ryan Goins two years ago hit one that hit Craig Lane, who’s handling the scoreboard, in the arm before bouncing on the floor.

Throughout the game, the umpire threw his hands in the air to trigger Phillips to turn off the pitch clock. It’s usually up to Phillips’ discretion on resetting the pitch clock, but there are instances where the umpire wants the clock off after a pitch in the dirt.

Packs of fans left their seats to the exit as the Chiefs game entered the latter innings. Kids, still waiting for their opportunity to run on the field after the game, stood crowded behind the right field fence. A two-run, game-tying single in the ninth signaled extra innings. The longest game in the Chiefs’ season could have extended further had it not been for a gray handheld remote gripped tightly in Phillips’ left hand.

The handheld pitch clock, smaller than the size of a typical TV remote, has three buttons, each representing a time and situation. The three black buttons are about the size of an average thumb, set up vertically on the left side.

The top button, labeled P1, triggers a 2-minute, 25-second stoppage used after a half inning or call to the bullpen. The middle button, P2, is just 20 seconds, used after each pitch excluding a foul, passed or dead ball. In that instance, the clock is off until the subsequent pitch hits the catcher’s glove. And the last button, P3, is a 30-second timer used after each batter. After clicking any of the three buttons, Phillips turns the switch on (clock start) in the top right. Once the pitcher enters his stance, Phillips quickly clicks the switch down (stop).

When a pitcher or batter takes too long, the umpire can penalize the disruptor. If the pitcher walks around the mound longer the 20-second frame between pitches, a ball is added to the count. If the batter takes too long, a strike is added. But Phillips notes umpires will call a delay only “once or twice a season.”

“The only thing (the pitch clock) changes is speeding the pitchers up in the warmups,” Brandon Snyder, a corner infielder for the Chiefs, said. “But the one in-game is dumb because they don’t even call it.”

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Joe Bloss | Senior Staff Writer

This lack of enforcement could explain why the average game time has increased since 2015. Pitchers rarely changed their usual antics because of the clock, instead keeping their typical routine, players said.

“It’s one of those things I don’t really pay attention to,” Snyder, who’s bounced around MLB and the minors for 13 years, added. “I don’t think it’s really helping anything.

“There’s guys that are still slow, there’s guys that are fast. I don’t think it makes a difference.”

Neil Ramirez entered in relief in the 13th inning with the score knotted at three. The right-hander has jumped around the majors, totaling 116 appearances. With such experience, Ramirez has seen the pitch clock both live in action (Triple-A) and as a non-factor (MLB). He didn’t struggle to get off the pitches before the 20-second timer struck zero. Pitching within the timer Ramirez says, is pretty common.

“Most guys work within that pitch clock anyways,” he said. “I don’t see why guys would need more than 20 seconds.”

After Chad Huffman hit a walk-off double, the right field fence opened and kids ran onto the field. Parents ambled toward the first-base dugout. The kids threw their gloves to the side and ran the bases. Despite the near four-hour game that might have run even longer without the pitch clock, fans stayed to see the entirety — and get some extra fun out of it.

“When you’re talking about that kind of a marginal difference, five minutes, ten minutes,” Ramirez said. “I think fans that are going to watch the games know that baseball is a longer game anyways.”

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